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Lincoln Riley effect doesn’t shake up USC’s early national signing day haul

Mater Dei running back Raleek Brown celebrates after a play during a 44-7 state bowl victory over San Mateo Serra.
Mater Dei running back Raleek Brown celebrates after a play during a 44-7 state bowl victory over San Mateo Serra on Saturday. Brown signed with USC on Wednesday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

During the 17 whirlwind days since he was hired as USC’s coach, as expectations for him soared on the recruiting trail, Lincoln Riley bounced from living room to living room, building his first class largely from scratch. Just three commits remained in the Trojans’ 2022 class by the time he’d been introduced as coach, none of whom he’d known beforehand, so Riley understood his work was cut out for him. The path to the early signing period would be a mad dash across the map for the new coach and his staff, jam-packed with out-of-state, in-home visits and on-campus recruiting extravaganzas, all with the intent of making both a convincing final pitch and a lasting first impression on a tight deadline.

But in any yet-to-be-told tale of USC’s still-hypothetical return to recruiting prominence, Wednesday is unlikely to factor all that prominently. Unlike the chaotic days leading up to it, the first day of the early signing period proved mostly uneventful for the Trojans and their new coach. There were no unexpected flips, no last-second surprises. Six players ultimately signed, four of whom were already committed. One transfer, Texas Christian defensive lineman Earl Barquet, also pledged to USC.

As several top prospects delayed their decisions, by days or even months, the Trojans barely had any announcements to monitor Wednesday.

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Many of the top high school football players in the Southland officially signed letters of intent Wednesday on early national signing day.

The only noteworthy one came shortly after noon, when four-star Bishop Gorman (Nev.) safety Zion Branch chose USC, handing its new coach an important early recruiting victory. Branch, who was first recruited by Riley at Oklahoma, said as he announced that the coach’s arrival at USC “was like a dream.” Next to him, his brother, Zachariah — a five-star receiver in the 2023 class — was smiling, decked out in his own USC swag, offering added hope for a future Trojans class.

A few hours earlier, their Bishop Gorman teammate, Fabian Ross, was one of the first in USC’s class to sign his letter of intent. The four-star cornerback first committed to USC almost a year earlier, and he was one of the few to maintain his pledge through the coaching change. He met Riley for the first time just days before signing, but he was already excited about USC’s new coach even before he made the trip to Vegas.

“When I heard the news, I couldn’t wait,” Ross told The Times. “I definitely feel like we have momentum. You can see a lot of other people are hatin’ because they know things are about to change.”

That sudden change in the landscape was — at least briefly — on hold Wednesday. USC won’t get the chance to prove its newfound recruiting prowess again until Friday, when the top player in the state, Mater Dei five-star cornerback Domani Jackson, will choose between USC and Alabama, a decision that could swing how Riley’s first recruiting class is graded.

New USC football coach Lincoln Riley throws out a T-shirt into the crowd at the Galen Center.
New USC football coach Lincoln Riley throws out a T-shirt into the crowd at the Galen Center on Saturday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

That class sat at 80th overall — and 10th in the Pac-12 — after one day of the early signing period, hardly the resounding opening statement USC fans had hoped for on the recruiting trail. But in an interview on the Pac-12 Network, Riley downplayed the importance of Wednesday’s deadline, referring to it as “just another day for us.”

“Today is so much different than what we were all used to,” Riley said. “With the transfer portal now, every day is signing day.”

That’s the approach Riley and his staff have settled on with moving forward, with plenty more to mine in the transfer portal and several important recruiting decisions still looming. After Jackson, the nation’s No. 7 prospect, at least three other top-100 players plan to seriously consider USC in the coming weeks.

Four-star Mater Dei receiver C.J. Williams decommitted from Notre Dame this week following an official visit to USC, but he won’t announce his decision until Jan. 8 at the All-American Bowl. Four-star Bishop Gorman edge rusher Cyrus Moss also won’t announce until the All-American Bowl, but he is expected to sign this week. Five-star Washington lineman Josh Conerly, meanwhile, is planning to wait until February.

The university suspension that caused USC running back Kenan Christon to miss one football season and threatened to hold him out for another has been reduced on appeal.

One five-star prospect needed no extra time. Mater Dei running back Raleek Brown didn’t take long to follow Riley, flipping from Oklahoma to USC soon after the coach’s arrival in Los Angeles. He signed Wednesday as the top-rated player in the Trojans’ six-player class.

He was joined by three-star Georgia linebacker Garrison Madden, the only signee outside of Branch who wasn’t committed to USC ahead of the early signing period. USC also added three-star Stockton Edison edge rusher Devan Thompson and Australian punter Atticus Bertrams.

But the main targets were still to come, the big questions still left unanswered.

“We’re getting ready to, in a lot of ways, overhaul this roster,” Riley said. “Today is one step in a process.”


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